When Greta Thunberg met Sir David Attenborough, as shown on BBC TV recently, she asked him what he would say to young people who think there is no point in saying or doing anything about climate change because no one is listening. He replied that people are listening. “There just could be a change in moral attitude from people and politicians worldwide to see that self interest is for the past, common interest is for the future,” he said.
We all have a common interest in cutting carbon emissions and trying to keep global warming to no more than 1.5C above pre-industrial averages. But we often let our self interest stand in the way. Making that extra effort to change our behaviour can be a struggle, especially when our institutions and infrastructure fail to support our efforts
It is easy to take the view that any changes we make, whether becoming vegetarian, giving up flying, or driving less, will make little difference, so why bother.
Or there is the hope some new technology will provide the solution, and we can carry on consuming without a worry. Nuclear fusion will prove possible after all, or we will be able to suck carbon out the air and store it somewhere. We are an endlessly inventive species so surely some tech whiz will find a way.
Both those ideas are comfort blankets we need to discard. It is true that unless you are one of the super wealthy your actions won’t make much direct difference. Reports show that the world’s richest 1% produce more than double the combined emissions of the poorest 50%. They need to make the biggest changes to their lifestyles.
If the richest 10% brought their emissions in line with the level of the average European, and the rest of us carried on as normal, global carbon emissions would drop by one-third within a couple of years, notes a report by the Cambridge Sustainability Commission.
The changes we make are just as important though. A one-third reduction in emissions is not enough. The more people who put solar panels on their roofs, insulate their homes, cut down on meat, and adopt active travel (by bike or foot), the quicker it will come to seem the normal thing to do. And once we’ve made one little change it becomes easier to make others. Of course, we need the help of the government and other institutions to make these changes, particularly where cost is a barrier. But don’t underestimate the power of individual example.
When it comes to technology, there is no doubt it can and will help. But our inventiveness has failed so far to stop emissions rising. Researchers from Lancaster University last year said climate action had been delayed for 40 years by technological promises. They called for an end to such promises and said the focus should switch to cultural, social and political transformation to tackle the climate crisis. That’s us and our communities!
The experience of the last year has shown that rapid transformation is possible. Our behaviour changed almost overnight as we went into lockdown. The vast majority of us complied with the new rules as the threat to our health was immediate and obvious. We have also participated willingly in the great vaccination experiment. We are effectively all guinea pigs, but recognise that our common interest lies in having the jab.
There is a consensus we need to Build Back Better as the pandemic subsides (fingers crossed!). That must mean prioritising actions to address the climate and ecological emergencies we face. In Teignbridge, 23 of the 50 town and parish councils, as well as the district council, have declared emergencies. Only a few have progressed to making an action plan or have consulted their communities on what they can do together. Action on Climate in Teignbridge is working with councils across the area to advise and support them. We have also recruited 64 volunteer wildlife wardens across 32 parishes, who will work to help local wildlife survive and thrive.
Every little helps, and there is often a positive benefit from such action to our own wellbeing as well as our environment.
“We have to make major changes to the way we live,” Sir David told Greta. It’s in our common interest.